January 02, 2013

Stan Lee had it right

My awesome GF got me the book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story for Christmas, and I can't put it down. I'm about a third through it, and during a read session yesterday, the following section stuck out at me (for obvious reasons):

Meanwhile, the letters coming in were almost evenly split between support for the and opposition to the Vietnam War. It was fiscally advisable for Marvel to hedge, but there was strong criticism when the stories avoided social issues entirely. Stan Lee's middle-of-the-road liberalism was, in its own way, unmovable. He'd happily preach tolerance, but he was not going to get caught taking an unpopular stance. "I don't think we'll be sending him to Vietnam," Lee told a radio interviewer, when asked about plans for Captain America. "We treat these characters sort of tongue-in-cheek and we get a lot of laughs out of them, we have fun with them. I don't know if it's in good taste to take something as serious as the situation in Vietnam and put a character like Captain America ... we would have to start treating him differently and taking the whole thing more seriously, which we're not prepared to do."

Stan the Man wanted to use the Silver Surfer as his personal message board, in a way -- but the former herald of Galactus' "vaguely Judeo-Christian humanitarian sermons weren't doing the trick." At a comic convention, a fan asked Stan about Marvel's "waffling" on social issues:

"Our thinking," Lee resonded, "is that the pages of our comics magazines may not be the right place for getting too heavy handed with social messages of any sort. We may be wrong. Maybe we should come out more forcibly and maybe we will."

Book author Sean Howe then notes that the pages of Marvel books "finally became more explicit in its incorporation of specific current events ..." But Stan Lee pretty much made sure that no specific side was taken. And this is what I've ... "complained" about ad nauseum here about contemporary comics. The distinction, or "line," has long been crossed -- politically -- by modern comicbook scribes. And while I'm certain that this hasn't been the factor in declining comics sales (or probably even a major one), I do know many people that have been very turned off by it, and, like me, have ceased most comicbook purchases as a result. Long gone are the skillful subtlety of a Steve Englehart taking a dig at Richard Nixon and Watergate. Or of a Mark Gruenwald having Captain America give up the hero role because of governmental intrusion. And in these days of ever-increasing social media exposure, creators have hardly been less-than-outspoken about various issues ... and if you've been a fan, this, too, can easily turn you off if such commentary goes against your own beliefs. After all, why would you want to pay someone ... for insulting you? How does that make any sense?

Ah well. I've certainly written about this topic enough. But it sure was enlightening reading Marvel's main man's opinions on it, especially considering that there was a lot more political turmoil/upheaval in the mid-late 1960s.

Posted by Hube at January 2, 2013 09:50 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

I've been wanting to read this book for a while. I'd read some great things about it. And yeah, I too am glad to see that Stan took no specific side and just told good stories, something today's writers are largely incapable of doing.

Posted by: Carl at January 2, 2013 02:31 PM

Loved this book; finished it about a month ago. Ironically, however, Captain America DID go to Vietnam in one of the late Tales of Suspense shorts, to retrieve the son of an old Army buddy who was shot down over North Vietnam. He has to fight a sumo wrestler, as I recall.

The most profound political positions taken during the 60s by Marvel were often found in Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandoes, which dealt in turn with racism, anti-semitism, and showed concentration camps (even sending Fury to Treblinka at one point). In one of the best written morally complex issues Marvel produced (I think it was issue #26), "Not a man shall remain alive..." Baron Strucker is sent to put down resistance in a French town called Cherbeaux and Stan Lee does an incredible job on the ethical dilemmas on both sides.

What is very interesting about the period is that Marvel presented very sympathetic treatments of LBJ all the way through his presidency (did you know he was one of the few people aware that Bruce Banner was the Hulk, because Rick Jones made a trip to the White House and told him?).

Posted by: Steve Newton at January 3, 2013 07:06 AM

@Steve: Yeah, I remember that story! From Tales of Suspense #61. It's collected in Essential Captain America, vol. 1, which I own.

Posted by: Carl at January 3, 2013 06:42 PM